Monday, August 22, 2016

In the realm of remains

This blog needs a reboot. It started off on the right track but took a turn off course. So, let's try again. No promises that I'll turn out an essay every week, but I'll turn out something.

For now, the blog theme is loss. We've lost two family members this summer, and I am also finally processing some other long-ago losses that need to be grieved. Maybe the tangible loss of a loved aunt and cousin were the catalyst for bringing those other mental ruins up from the depths. My recent reading is probably also feeding that catalyst. I taught English last year as a long-term sub at my daughter's school and found myself immersed in good fiction and poetry again. I had sworn off both, but in doing that, I had disowned a mother of sorts. Every loss has its parallel somewhere in literature, and story and poetry can provide perspective and shared experience. And so, I found myself reading the 13th sonnet of Part 2 from The Sonnets To Orpheus by Rainer Marie Rilke.

I enjoy Rilke in small doses. The intense brooding can be a little much, but mostly I do love this collection. This poem simultaneously makes me want to beat Rilke up and to sit down with him over a glass of wine and talk until the wee hours. That's usually a pretty good indication that it's doing what poetry should do.

To make sense of the poem, you need to know the story of Orpheus and Eurydice from Greek mythology. Orpheus is a musician whose skills on the lyre are so great that animals and even trees follow him around to listen. He marries Eurydice, a nymph, but she is bitten by a snake, dies, and goes to the underworld. Orpheus is devastated and somehow finds a way to follow her there. He charms the King of the Dead with his music and is given permission to lead Eurydice out of Hades and back into the land of the living under one condition - he can't look back at her. Of course, he does. She is reclaimed by Hades. He is inconsolable and wanders around alone playing sad music until finally, a bunch of wild women tear him to pieces. Nice story, eh?

Stephen Mitchell's translations of the sonnets are the best I know of, although nothing compares with reading them in German, even my own (very) sketchy German. So, I've included both.

Edward Poynter [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Sonnets To Orpheus:  Book 2, XIII by Rainer Marie Rilke, trans. Stephen Mitchell

Be ahead of all parting, as though it already were
behind you, like the winter that has just gone by.
For among these winters there is one so endlessly winter
that only by wintering through it all will your heart survive.

Be forever dead in Eurydice-more gladly arise
into the seamless life proclaimed in your song.
Here, in the realm of decline, among momentary days,
be the crystal cup that shattered even as it rang.

Be-and yet know the great void where all things begin,
the infinite source of your own most intense vibration,
so that, this once, you may give it your perfect assent.

To all that is used-up, and to all the muffled and dumb
creatures in the world's full reserve, the unsayable sums,
joyfully add yourself, and cancel the count.

Sei allem Abschied voran, als wäre es hinter
dir, wie der Winter, der eben geht.
Denn unter Wintern ist einer so endlos Winter,
daß, überwinternd, dein Herz überhaupt übersteht.

Sei immer tot in Eurydike-, singender steige,
preisender steige zurück in den reinen Bezug.
Hier, unter Schwindenden, sei, im Reiche der Neige,
sei ein klingendes Glas, das sich im Klang schon zerschlug.

Sei - und wisse zugleich des Nicht-Seins Bedingung,
den unendlichen Grund deiner innigen Schwingung,
daß du sie völlig vollziehst dieses einzige Mal. 
Zu dem gebrauchten sowohl, wie zum dumpfen und stummen
Vorat der vollen Natur, den unsäglichen Summen,
zähle dich jubelnd hinzu und vernichte die Zahl.

The poem is beautiful and intense, but not without its amusements.

Line 4: "only by wintering through it all will your heart survive."  Cue the sappy music: "My Heart Will Go On" by Celine Dion. Really, Rilke? And survive? Who survives here? Eurydice stays dead, and Orpheus is eventually torn limb from limb. Seriously, who the heck survives here, Rilke? 

Is the ending positive? negative? sarcastic? No, not sarcastic. Rilke is nothing if not infinitely sincere. But if I'd written these words, they would be sarcastic.
To all that is used-up, and to all the muffled and dumb creatures in the world's full reserve, the unsayable sums, joyfully add yourself, and cancel the count.
It's "joyfully" that really gets me. I'm reminded of Salieri's monologue at the end of Amadeus - "mediocrities everywhere, I absolve you!"

I'm making fun of Rilke and German Expressionism...just a little. But the poem offers poignant questions about the nature of losing.

What does it mean to be ahead of all parting? I might know a little too much about that.
What are the "momentary days?"
Can a shattered cup ring?
What is the void that requires an assent? ("complete assent" is a better translation than "perfect")
What is being assented to, and why "this once?"
Who are the muffled and dumb creatures?
What does it mean to "cancel the count?"

And questions of the myth itself:

Who would benefit most from this rescue operation from hell?
Did Eurydice even want to go?
Is Orpheus' loss of Eurydice the primary loss?
What did Eurydice lose?
Why does Orpheus get all the sympathy?
What do the wild women symbolize?

When it comes to poetry and myths, the questions are the important thing, and the answers are all negotiable. For me, the poem ultimately hinges on the phrase "this once."
Be-and yet know the great void where all things begin, the infinite source of your own most intense vibration, so that, this once, you may give it your perfect assent.
His assent is only complete this once, when he has fully comprehended the great void. Maybe the void is his own finitude - his own inadequacy to resurrect Eurydice. One of the qualities of both Greek mythology and Rilke is that they don't try to mitigate futility with some neatly tied up moral of the story. Futility simply is what it is.

Favorite line: Hier, unter Schwindenden, sei, im Reiche der Neige.
Translation:  Be, here, under dwindling days in the realm of remains. 

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